LS: Grand Valley man leads effort to build home for family in need
Mike Ruspil is dedicated to helping others because he owes his life to someone else.
When Ruspil was 10, he was swimming in a farm pond and his feet got tangled in some weeds. He started to drown.
A man sitting on shore saw what was happening and dived in to save Ruspil.
After the man lifted him out of the water, Ruspil turned around to help the man, but he was gone.
The man who drowned saving Ruspil was his father, Gaston Ruspil.
“An act of love gave me a second life,” Ruspil said, tears forming in the corners of his eyes, nearly 40 years after he lost his father.
Ruspil smiled and made a small joke about crying.
“You know what I say?” asked Ruspil, 50, wiping his eyes. “Tears are just God letting you know your face needs cleaning.”
And Ruspil’s face has been dirty a lot lately.
Ruspil, an adaptive physical education teacher for various School District 51 schools, teaches special needs students how to ski, bowl, snowshoe and swim. He also is heading up a home-building project for Mary White and her three daughters, Shiloh, Courtnie and McKenzie.
White is an instructional aide for special needs students at Fruita Monument High School.
Her youngest daughter, Mc-Kenzie White, 14, is one of Ruspil’s students. McKenzie was paralyzed eight years ago after having a heart attack at school.
The White family has raised thousands of dollars to help the adaptive physical education program.
Mary White and her daughters have never lived in a home that is completely accessible to McKenzie and her wheelchair.
Ruspil and others in the Grand Valley have decided to give the White family a home that is safe and functional.
He has been moved to tears by the generosity of people who have donated time, money or both to the construction of a home for the White family at 779 24 1/2 Road. Many of the people offering to help do not even know White or her daughters.
“If you choose to make a difference, you can make a difference,” Ruspil said.
And making a difference takes many forms. For Ruspil, it’s helping to build a home with zero home-building experience.
“I’m scared of this project,” Ruspil said. “I don’t know how to build a home, but I can put myself out there.”
Ruspil went to school at San Jose State University to study wildlife biology, but others told him he had a gift to work with children. He changed his major to adaptive physical education.
Ruspil got involved with special needs students nearly 30 years ago when he became a Special Olympics coach in California while in college. He taught a boy how to throw a softball. When the same boy won a medal, he gave it to Ruspil.
“The athletes showed me so much about what was important,” Ruspil said. “I told myself I want to be the oldest Special Olympics coach. It’s a goal.”
Ruspil met his wife, Nancy Ruspil, at a Special Olympics function in California. They have been married nearly 17 years and have a son, Ryan.
Ruspil has coached Special Olympics athletes in Mesa County for about 10 years, and McKenzie has been involved in the program since she was 8 years old.
“People ask ‘Why this family? Why them?’ ” Ruspil said. “If you only knew what they have given us. When (Special Olympics) struggled to raise funds, Mary and her family made crafts and pillows and were selling them at Christmas crafts fairs.”
Two people who have vowed to help with the White house effort are high school student Ellen Gaglione and Dona Garretson, a retired accountant and international vice president of
Altrusa International Inc., a service organization focused on volunteerism and education.
The local chapter of Altrusa became acquainted with the White family through Altrusa member Barb Harvey, a special education teacher at Fruita Monument High School. Altrusa volunteers are ready to help build the White family a home.
“We want to help people who want to help themselves,” Garretson said. “Mary and her family are the epitome of that.”
Garretson and her husband, Ted, started helping others in the mid-1970s when they quit their jobs and sold their Colorado Springs home to move to El Salvador with the Peace Corps.
The Garretsons spent nearly two years in the Latin American country. After returning to the United States, the Garretsons moved to the Grand Valley, where the couple and their two grown daughters continued to volunteer.
Gaglione doesn’t have a volunteer resume as long as Garretson’s or Ruspil’s, but she has comparable energy. Gaglione is a senior at Fruita Monument High School and Courtnie’s classmate.
Gaglione organized a fundraiser dinner for the White family in November. The spaghetti event raised about $6,000, double what Gaglione hoped for.
“They are just so nice,” Gaglione said. “This family has all this stuff to overcome. It seemed like I had the time and leadership experience. It seemed like someone had to do something.”
Gaglione is on her school’s student council, but the fundraiser was the first she organized. Her family helped cook the food.
Gaglione wants to go to college to become a psychologist for special needs children.
Armed with Altrusa volunteers and motivated high school students, Ruspil also has commitments from contractors, painters, excavators and other professionals who want to be a part of the project.
Among the donations Ruspil has received for the project are four $1 bills from a woman with two small children. “I want to be a part of this,” the woman told Ruspil.
He also has nearly $1,000 raised by Orchard Avenue Elementary School.
“I think there are going to be many ‘wows’ as I watch this happen,” Ruspil said. “It’s a home built on a foundation of love.”
In 2007, the White family applied to be on the hit ABC show “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.” When producers from the show didn’t call back, Ruspil did not give up on the idea of a new house.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever quit anything in my life,” Ruspil said.
The planning and approval process to build the home took longer than Ruspil thought.
Crews have yet to break ground on the home site, but will likely do so soon. Fluorescent pink flags mark a footprint of where the home will be built.
“I have a really hard time accepting help,” said White, who has seen the construction plans.
“But this is not about me. It’s about my girls.”